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{Translator’s Note}: What follows is not contained in the “official” version of “The Seven Rings of Empathy.” That does not mean it’s any less true. It was not included in the original version because the majority of those who decided what went into the “official” oral history of the Veritas apparently thought this story too irrelevant to the main points of “The Seven Rings of Empathy.” Beyond that, several thought that the danger of providing a “bad model” for future generations outweighed the potential benefits of being forewarned. But none of the judges thought the story untrue. 

I agree, however, with the “minority report” – the judge who deemed that it should be included. If treachery and selfishness are part of human nature, why should we not know that? It does not mean, of course, that we should simply give in what is worst in our natures and use the excuse that we couldn’t help it. But knowing the sorts of errors we may fall into should both help prevent those who could be tempted and forewarn those who could minimize the damage done by such people. 

I do understand, nonetheless, the other point of view. Some of the work of Dan Ariely, for instance, which empirically studies ethics, suggests that telling people about some evil thing that some people do may actually increase the chances of more doing the same thing. For instance, some years ago, the US Park Service became concerned that too many people were taking little pieces of the Petrified Forest. So they put up signs that said something like: “Every year, 1000 pounds of this national treasure are stolen by people just like you. If this continues, the Petrified Forest will be destroyed.” So, people thought: “Hmmm, I hadn’t really thought of taking a piece for myself.” And, people thought, “Oh, so many people are doing it; I guess it can’t be that bad.” And, people thought, “I’d better get my piece before it’s all gone!.” A better sign might have read, “Every year thousands of visitors come to the Petrified Forest and the vast majority of them leave this majestic and unique beauty unmarred for future generations. We’re sure you’re another such person.” 

Or, to take an even more recent example, I would have thought it a good thing for everyone to know the atrocities that were committed under the direction of egomaniacal dictators so that it would never happen again. In the first place, if someone did have the tendency to lie, cheat, and steal their way to world domination, they would see that it actually never works out that way. Hitler ended up committing suicide and Mussolini was beaten to death by a crowd of his own people. I would hope that someone with tendencies like that, even if they weren’t moved to avoid becoming the sort of person who would commit atrocities would at least see that it was not going to end well for them either. Then, they would be encouraged to feed the “good wolf” and not become that kind of monster. It is, ultimately, the set of choices one makes that decide what kind of person they become. That was true for the Veritas tribe and it’s true for all of humanity.

Secondly, I would have thought everyone else would realize in an eye-blink how horrible it would be for everyone in a country if that country became a dictatorship. It’s pretty obvious from a priori arguments, but there is also empirical evidence. So, I had naively thought, “Well, thank God, we don’t have to go through that again!” 

We’ll see. But so far, I am thinking, if humanity “can’t handle the truth” as Jack Nicholson accused, then, we’re sunk anyway. The truth is the only way we can live and prosper. What does it mean to want the truth? It means you are becoming knowledgeable enough to react in an intelligent way to what happens. Any compromise with the truth means lessening of trust and therefore of cooperation and coordination. That in turn, means less of everything good for everyone. Therefore, I am of the opinion that the minority judge was right that the story of POND MUD and ALT-R is relevant to the teachings of “The Seven Rings of Empathy.” I am also of the opinion that, on balance, the story will prevent more people from being mean and stupid than it will promote. 

One short word though on my use of the word “official.” As I mentioned before, many people in “modern” and “sophisticated” and “techophilic” (or maybe that’s spelled “technophalic”?) civilizations believe that oral histories are completely distorted and wildly unreliable. That may be so in some instances, but the Veritas were quite aware of the possible influences to corrupt stories over time and therefore instituted a whole range of measures to keep the learnings from stories immaculately accurate (and I may delve into that more precisely at some future date). In any case, as I already mentioned, none of the judges doubted the truth of the following story. 

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The Friendship/Not-Friendship of POND MUD & ALT-R

Neither ALT-R nor POND MUD had been given the third, fourth or fifth ring of empathy. Yet, each secretly hoped that She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives might reconsider. Indeed, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives still held out some hope for ALT-R who was, in her estimation, one of the smartest in her lifetime. And, he had promised to feed the “good wolf.” She hoped that ALT-R and POND MUD might learn from one another and become more complete persons even if they never gained further rings. 

For their parts, POND MUD and ALT-R speculated who the eventual successor to the shaman might be. This provided only one of many topics that they talked about. Having been culled from the trials at the same time and for similar reasons encouraged their friendship. Such a pair could potentially help each other considerably. POND MUD had indeed been endowed with unusual strength while ALT-R showed remarkable cleverness in many respects. Their secret hope of somehow still winning the leadership of the tribe was one of the very few things that they failed to share with each other. For each was intelligent enough to see the wisdom of forming a partnership. POND MUD realized, though he hated to admit it, that he would never be so smart as ALT-R. And, ALT-R knew full well that he would never be so strong physically as POND MUD. Each, however, secretly cherished the notion that some how, a day would come that would make each to be the leader of the Veritas. Of course, POND MUD would push to have ALT-R to be his trusted advisor, for it always seemed to POND MUD that whenever their preferred plans differed, it was ALT-R that had the better plan. 

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For his part, ALT-R held just such a similar dream in his own heart. He saw himself as the leader of the Veritas with POND MUD as his personal bodyguard. Neither ALT-R nor POND MUD shared either this central tenet of their dreams or the machinations against the other to ensure their eventual dominance. For dominance over others was what each desired. 

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On one occasion, POND MUD and ALT-R decided to go foraging for blueberries. Each youth journeyed with a basket and a stave. When they came to a narrow path allowing only a leader and a follower, ALT-R led the way. From behind, POND MUD found it quite irresistible to use his stave to trip ALT-R. After the third such time, ALT-R turned and confronted POND MUD with a red face and a racing pulse, his stave held before him, his basket discarded on the ground. POND MUD laughed, “So, you want to challenge me? Have at it!” ALT-R proved skillful but he was still no match for the strength of POND MUD who basically pushed ALT-R down and then sat on his chest pinning his arms until ALT-R admitted that POND MUD was indeed much stronger. POND MUD let him up and led the way. “Good! Now, you know I am the leader. Follow me and we’ll be there quickly.” They walked in silence for a time. 

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POND MUD was so happy to have won the contest and so busy fantasizing about becoming the leader of the Veritas that he failed to take the proper path to the top of the blueberry hill. ALT-R, for his part, fumed still and though he could see that POND MUD had missed the turn, he had no intention of telling him for he knew that the path POND MUD travelled and knew that it led to a quagmire. Gradually, ALT-R let POND MUD get farther and farther ahead. They walked by witch hazel and spicebush and ALT-R gathered some leaves of each for they would be useful in later making a poultice that would help to treat the bruises that POND MUD had inflicted with his stave. POND MUD glanced back over his shoulder to note ALT-R gathering leaves. Again, he felt compelled to force his will on another. “Hey, hurry up! What are you doing? We’re here for blueberries. Not leaves. Follow me! We’re almost there! If you were the leader, it would take us forever to get to blueberry hill!” 

ALT-R’s voice dripped with enough irony to satisfy himself but be undetectable by the less subtle mind of POND MUD. “Yes, very lucky that you’re the one leading us down to blueberry hill.” 

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Though not so subtle as ALT-R, nonetheless, that phrase bothered POND MUD though he couldn’t quite discern what it was about ALT-R’s words that rung strangely. The journey was taking too long, he thought, so he yelled back to ALT-R yet again. “Hurry it up! It never takes this long to get to blueberry hill. You’re so slow! If I were on my own…Yech! What?! This path is flooded! Or mudded. I don’t recall this.” Now POND MUD’s feet were sinking. He tried to lift one and then the other foot out of the thick mud but each time, he only succeeded in sinking more deeply. He saw what appeared to be more solid ground ahead and struggled forward sinking still more deeply. Soon, his yelling and struggling succeeded in putting him in mud up to his chest. “What’s going on! Come here and help me!”

ALT-R responded to POND MUD’s panic with cold calm. That was fairly easy because ALT-R was still on rock solid ground. “No sense in both of us getting stuck. Stop struggling. Put your stave out to the side like this and drape your arms over it.” He demonstrated what was to be done. “Yes, that’s it. Now, I know this seems scary, but lean forward so your chest is on the mud. Go on. Do it if you don’t want to be stuck there forever. Keep the stave under you. Yes. And swim slowly toward me with the breast stroke. Eventually your legs will come up behind you. Let them lay along the mud as well.” 

POND MUD felt only slightly less panicked but ALT-R’s instructions did seem to be working. Very slowly, he swam through the mud toward the edge of the quagmire. 

A sudden inspiration hit ALT-R. “That’s it! You’re doing great. Slow and easy. Put your face down in the mud and blow some bubbles. That will get you here more quickly.” 

POND MUD frowned. “Why? How does that work?” 

ALT-R smiled, “I don’t know; I just know it works. Do it.”

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In another circumstance, POND MUD might not have followed ALT-R’s directions, but in the current situation, he would have grasped at any straw, had there been any. He took a deep breath, lay his face down in the mud and blew bubbles till his lungs were empty. Then, he cautiously lifted up his face, tried to shake some of the mud off by shaking his head back and forth. 

“That’s great. You’re doing well. Better take a breath and then put your face back in the mud and blow some more bubbles. You’ll be here in no time.” The next time, POND MUD came up for air, ALT-R yelled, “Wait! POND MUD, where’s your basket?” 

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“Who cares?” answered POND MUD. “It’s back there. It probably sunk.” 

“No, it didn’t sink. I see it. It’s only a few feet behind you. Isn’t that the basket She-of-Many-Paths made you? She won’t still fancy you if you lose that basket that she worked so hard on.” 

POND MUD tried to keep the panic out of his voice. “NO! You get it. I can’t go back.” 

ALT-R laughed just the slightest possible bit. “Oh, POND MUD, it’s just a little mud. Surely you can go back a few feet and get it. You’re not afraid of a little mud are you? After all, you are POND MUD.” 

POND MUD gritted his teeth, “I’m not going back! It’s too dangerous. You get it if you’re so smart.” 

ALT-R appeared to consider this. “Well, OK. I’ll get it, but then everyone will know you are too afraid of a little mud to get the basket of the young woman who loves you. A basket, I should add, that is only a few feet away.” 

“I don’t care! You get it! But don’t tell anyone! Tell her I got it. In fact, don’t tell her anything. Just get the basket! Please!” POND MUD was still inching his way forward through the mud. 

ALT-R meanwhile, had been inching backwards imperceptibly. “I’ll get it for you, POND MUD, but you definitely owe me one. No more talk from you about my following you. You’re following me from now on. But we have a bigger problem. You’re not making any more progress. You’d better put your face down in the mud and blow some more bubbles.” POND MUD complied.  

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ALT-R knew that if he gave POND MUD too much time to overcome his panic, he’d begin to see that ALT-R was toying with him. So, while POND MUD had his face in the mud, ALT-R came forward to the edge of solid ground and had POND MUD advance his stave to him while ALT-R thrust his stave out toward POND MUD. As soon as POND MUD felt the tug, he begin to try to stand upright. 

“NO!” yelled ALT-R. “Stay level. Don’t try to stand up yet! Stay on your belly till you’re on solid ground!” ALT-R struggled backwards bracing his feet as best he could on protruding rocks and roots. At last, POND MUD lay on solid ground, presently sat up, and began trying to wipe mud off his face.

ALT-R had never before summoned so much self-control but now successfully forced himself not to laugh at POND MUD covered in pond mud. It wasn’t really pond mud, but close enough to be absurdly funny to ALT-R. 

When POND MUD at last recovered his composure, he said, “Don’t forget your promise! Now, it’s your turn to get that basket. Let’s see how you like getting doused in mud!” 

“And what about your end of the bargain, POND MUD? If I retrieve that basket, you promise to follow my leadership?” Or, shall you be the one to tell She-of-Many-Paths that you managed to lose the basket she so lovingly wove for you? Or, shall I tell her?” 

“No. No. Okay. I’ll follow your lead. I swear.” 

“Good decision, POND MUD. Let me get that basket for you.” ALT-R turned and began walking back up the path away from the swamp. 

POND MUD screamed, “Where are you going? You promised to get the basket!” 

ALT-R did not turn back, but stopped a few feet farther up the path to the place he had noticed a ten foot sapling, dead, but not rotted. He broke the small brittle trunk and used his hands to break off a few remnant branches. He ignored the shouts of POND MUD and calmly walked back to the edge of the quagmire. He held the small end of the trunk in his hand and hooked one of the broken branch stems onto the handle of the basket on the very first try. He was able to use two hands to leverage the basket up and then pull it in without getting it any muddier. He handed it to POND MUD. “Here you are. As promised.” 

POND MUD seemed confused. “But…but you didn’t get muddy!”

ALT-R replied cooly, “Why would I do that? Would that make She-of-Many-Paths love you any the more? She would be a strange woman indeed who would love you more because I went needlessly through mud to get the basket she made for you. Wouldn’t you agree?” 

POND MUD shook his head, half in puzzlement, half in further attempts to free his face of mud. “But I could have done that myself! I didn’t need to swim through the mud.” 

ALT-R replied, “Perhaps you are correct, but a promise is a promise and your word is your bond. But if you like, we can relate everything that happened to She-of-Many-Paths and let her decide who she likes more. Of course, I would feel honor bound to tell her the truth. That you were too afraid to go back and get the basket yourself and had me do it. And, in return that you promised to follow me if I got the basket for you. I could be wrong, of course. I think that if we tell her the truth…well, you know women are so unpredictable. She might think you don’t really care for her if you won’t even bear a little mud for the time of a few breaths though it took her at least a day’s work to make this basket.” 

POND MUD grumbled but picked up his stave and his basket and followed ALT-R. They gathered no blueberries that day, however. Instead, they went to a nearby clear stream and washed off. For even ALT-R has a bit splattered with mud. Once again, it took all his self-control not to laugh at POND MUD as he washed off the now-dried mud of the swamp. ALT-R thought, and not for the last time, that he indeed he would one day become the leader of the Veritas, regardless of the trials set by the Shaman. Outsmarting her would be more difficult than outsmarting POND MUD. This he recognized and acknowledged. But he saw no reason why he should fail. 

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Dan Ariely’s book: predictably irrational

 

My author page on Amazon